NEW YORK – The Fifth Avenue Mile has been a magnet for Olympic runners since 1981. And this year’s race will be no exception. On Saturday, 13 Olympians will rip a straight mile down one of the most famous streets in the world. Americans Jenny Simpson and Bernard Lagat will try to defend their titles while their London teammates Shannon Rowbury and Leo Manzano (1500m silver medalist) will try to outkick them to victory. Matt Centrowitz is another contender. The Oregon-based miler placed fourth behind Manzano in his Olympic debut this summer. He’s also a second-generation Olympian with special ties to New York City. On Thursday, the Fifth Avenue rookie chatted with TeamUSA.org.
Many people know that your dad, Matt, ran the 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; you placed fourth in London at the same distance; and last year – at age 21 – you earned world championship bronze medal. But that’s it. What drew you to running? Was there any family pressure?
There was no family pressure whatsoever. Both my parents ran – not just my dad. My mom, Beverly, was a half-miler for Hunter College in New York. My older sister, Lauren, ran for Stanford and was a multiple All-American – so four out of five people in my family run. My older sister and I did not even know my dad was an Olympian until, I believe, my sophomore year in high school. He never talked about it; he never showcased any of his medals. I remember going to school and someone said, “I read in the paper your dad was an Olympian.” I came home and was: "What the?" My dad was just like, “yeah.” I think if he had told us he was an Olympic athlete, it would have made it seem like we had to strive for that. So, not knowing and finding our own niche, I think, worked out really well.
Since your dad was so nonchalant, did you even watch the Olympics as a kid in Maryland?
I don’t remember watching that many. I was a soccer player, so the World Cup was the big thing. Really only the last Olympics [in 2008], I was on the edge of my seat and getting goosebumps from certain races because I was more involved in [running] and appreciated the performances more. My dad rarely keeps up with the sport aside from what he’s doing. He’s coaching at American University in [Washington, D.C.] and a post-collegiate club called the Pacers. That’s all he really worries about.
So as a soccer player, running when you’re chasing a ball is very different than running for running’s sake. Do you miss the game aspect of soccer?
I miss more the team aspect. That’s why cross-country was so cool in college because other people count on you, versus track when you’re pretty much rooting against your competitors. You know what I mean? Soccer was great for conditioning too.
My dad likes to tell this funny story. When I was younger, I’d be at high school [soccer] practice watching the cross country guys jog by and they’d go out for three or four miles. I’d come back from practice and be like: Wow! Those guys run so much! They ran three to four miles. My dad would be laughing because he knew our warm up for soccer consisted of a mile. At the end of practice, they made us run another mile. And we would have a 90-minute practice, sometimes two hours, and all you’re doing during that time is running back and forth up and down the field. Not only were these warm-up and cool-downs, but it was timed. They would make us run hard.
So we’re doing more quality and more quantity than this cross-country team that’s prancing around at 8-minute mile pace. He’d crack up because I’d be LOVING that I’m on the soccer team because I’m not running as much as the cross-country guys, and he was like: Little do you know. He just kept that to himself.
Who’s your coach now?
Alberto [Salazar]. I just left the University of Oregon to turn professional. I had four years there, but I red-shirted indoor and outdoor so I would have had a full season left. I would have been a fifth year.
How did you and Alberto come together?
My dad ran with Alberto in college. They both went to University of Oregon. I’ve known him pretty much my whole life. Always, in the back of my head, I thought it would be great to run under him. He’s so excited for his runners. It’s hard not to feed off that excitement. He’s intense, and I think that’ll work well with me. Another thing that attracted me to the group was that it’s close-knit and everyone’s on the same page.
Have you graduated from Oregon?
No, I took the term off to focus on the Trials. I’m heading back to school this fall. In fact, my first class will be two days after the [Fifth Avenue] race. I’m a sociology major.
Is this your first Fifth Avenue Mile?
It is. This is my first road race EVER so it’ll be a little bit different. I’m excited. Growing up on the East Coast, I’ve heard about the race for years. Also, New York has always been to a second home to me. I love New York. My mom went to Hunter. My dad grew up in the Bronx and went to Manhattan College before transferring to Oregon. We’d go up at least a few times a year, catch a Yankees Game. My uncle Gerry still lives here. I think his apartment is at the finish line. He’s my godfather as well. He ran the mile, too. He wasn’t as good as my dad but he did win a Penn Relays watch and brag about it. He’ll always ask my dad, “What time is it?” and stick his watch out because my dad never won a Penn Relays watch.
Who came to watch you run in London?
Just my mom and dad. My dad didn’t allow my sister to go. She just finished grad school.
Has Lauren retired from running?
No, but unfortunately, she’s been dealing with a lot of injuries for the past few years. She made [the US Olympic Trials] but she was dealing with injuries and didn’t want to go there and just kind of bomb. She ran before I did and is one of the reasons why I got into running. I saw the success she had. That motivated me and inspired me. I have a younger sister as well. She’s the only one that didn’t run. Actually, she did run for a year or two but didn’t enjoy it. We all applauded her for being the one who could step away from the sport.
Did placing fourth at the Olympics match, exceed, or fall short of your expectations?
Definitely it matched. Exceeding expectations would have been a win. After finishing third last year [at Worlds], it was pretty much at the same place, being on that bubble, right there. It shows that I’m consistently at that level now and I’m always going to be – hopefully in the future – vying for a medal.
The U.S. had several fourth-place finishers in London: Bernard Lagat at 5000m, Lolo Jones in the 100m hurdles, Meb Keflezighi in the marathon. Is there any sort of fraternity/sorority among fourth place finishers?
It’s a great crowd to be mentioned among. It’s the first person not to medal, but fourth in the world. After the race when I was drug tested, I saw Lolo back there. We were probably feeling the same thing. There’s not really much to say in that kind of situation. No one wants to hear: “Hey, you’re so close. You did a good job.”
Do you replay the race in your mind? Are there things you would have changed?
I’ve reflected on it, for sure. I don’t regret anything. I was in the position I wanted to be in, until the last lap. I fell back a little bit. The last straightway, my legs were coming underneath me so I knew I gave everything I had. Definitely I ran to my full potential on that day.
There were just three guys that were better than me. [It took] probably a week or so [before I watched it again]. Normally after a race I’ll watch it that night or the next day. I’ll be the first to admit, I shed some tears after that race. It was a tough one to swallow. What was done, was done. I didn’t really want to reflect on it at that point. I knew I had some races coming up so the quicker I could have moved on the better. At the same time, it isn’t like I ran bad. It was just bittersweet.
How many races have you run since then?
Three in Europe: Lausanne, Birmingham, Brussels. This is my last one. Then I can finally get a break, stay up late, eat junk food, and be 22-years-old.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.